Hail the Dernaissance: Five Fave Performances

We’re living in some challenging times. Thank God for Laura Dern. From Big Little Lies to Twin Peaks to Star Wars (!!!) she is having a truly incredible year. I wish I could claim the term Dernaissance (“Did you mean: renaissance” listen Google, I know what I mean). The earliest use of the hashtag that I can see on Twitter is from January 2017 and I’ve seen it everywhere, sweeping the internet like a critically acclaimed contagion. In honour of said contagion and particularly her upcoming performance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (that purple hair is already iconic) I invite you to join me as I rank a few of my favourite Dern roles. Long live the Dernaissance!

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  • Jurassic Park

I can be grateful for Dr Ellie Sattler, paleobotanist, for many reasons. Evidently highly intelligent, adventurous and compassionate, in the year of our lord 2017 she is, rather infuriatingly, still a breath of fresh air when it comes to women in blockbusters. This film is the same age as me, for crying out loud.

On paper her role might seem to be the nagging girlfriend who just wants to tie her partner down with the responsibilities of having children and prevent him from pursuing his Manly interests. But while Alan Grant is off performing the parental role Ellie more than holds her ground in a wholly male group, most memorably venturing out where the raptors are loose to turn the electricity back on. “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back”, she says with a raised eyebrow. Iconic.

(Bryce Dallas Howard’s straight laced Claire Dearing in Jurassic World eventually swooning over Chris Pratt’s totally retrograde, hyper-blokey Owen Grady was a painful step backwards. Don’t get me started on those bloody high heels).

Ellie is not there to be sexualised, mocked for her femininity or to act as the token Action Girl, punching raptors in the face while still asking the male hero “what do we do now?”. Laura Dern imbues her with curiosity, tenacity and independence, providing us with feminist soundbites for the ages (“Woman inherits the earth”) and a brilliantly easy fancy dress costume. We should all be truly grateful.

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  • Big Little Lies

The Dernaisscence we are blessed to be currently experiencing really kicked off with this utterly brilliant miniseries that gradually enthralled me until the final episode had me weeping in my pyjamas.

Initially packaged as a story about the intense rivalry between alpha mothers flicking their impeccably styled hair outside the school gates, the series totally subverted my expectations. While it appeared to be about dirty secrets, thinly veiled barbs and a guaranteed knife in a Tiger Mom’s back the story was ultimately about a group of women feeling trapped and alone coming together to protect each other and eradicate the abuse they’ve suffered.

This duality of tone is perhaps exemplified best by Laura Dern’s Renata Klein who is simply delicious to watch. A CEO who’s clearly clawed her way to the top, she’s a gunslinger in stilettos as she tells Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline “You’re dead in this town” for disrupting her daughter’s birthday party. She is persistent in her attempts to expel the boy she believes is responsible for choking her darling little Amabella and seems just a few sips of white wine away from completely losing it.

In the end however, Renata is no pantomime villain, even with the eyepatch. She’s a high achiever desperately trying to maintain control of what she’s earned beneath a veneer of smiles of gritted teeth. Her dogged search for justice for her daughter ultimately reconciles her with Shailene Woodley’s Jane and culminates with her presence in the bloody denouement in which justice is served. I don’t think there’s been a more satisfying moment on television this year.

Laura Dern’s strengths as an actress are clearly on display here as she balances an often very funny barely suppressed rage with an underlying sense of helplessness. It’s a brilliant performance that rightfully won her an Emmy.

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  • Twin Peaks: The Return

To put it mildly, I did not love Twin Peaks: The Return. Hours of seemingly totally disconnected scenes that are impossible to follow spent with characters I have no interest in punctuated with truly horrifying sequences of violence against women does not make for must see quality television. However, the reveal of the unseen Diane as played by Laura Dern had me cheering.

It’s a too small role for Laura (we’re on first name terms now) but every moment she’s on screen she shines. With her bob haircut, heavy winged eyeliner and chain smoking habit she brings the enigmatic Diane to life and demands that you take notice. It’s time to be seen.

I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what happens to Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return. I couldn’t for the life of me really tell you what happens to any character in Twin Peaks: The Return. But her withering glares, judgemental head tilts and icy silences occasionally broken with a “Fuck you, Gordon” or “Fuck you, Albert” make for more compelling viewing than pretty much anything else on screen.

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  • Wild at Heart

Laura brings depth, soul and yes, heart, to the role of Lula Fortune in David Lynch’s dark, disturbing, romantic road trip. It’s a twisted Wizard of Oz meets lovers-on-the-run movie, with Lula as a damaged Dorothy searching for love, stability and family. She may be wild but there’s no place like home.

As with virtually all of David Lynch’s characters, Lula is rather cartoonish. She’s a Marilyn-esque, intensely sexual woman, all red lipstick, black skintight clothing and cigarettes, drawling that she’s “hotter than Georgia asphalt”. And, sadly unsurprisingly for a Lynch film, she’s also the victim of rape and violent sexual assault, first at the hands of a friend of her father when she was only thirteen and then later by Willem Dafoe’s truly loathsome gangster. While both depictions of trauma are typically Lynchian in their sensationalised, eroticised portrayal of sexual violence against women Laura brings a vulnerability that grounds her trauma in reality.

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  • The Good Time Girls

Just fifteen minutes long, this short is an inspired subversion of the Western genre in which Laura and her girl gang brutally (this is very NSFW) punish the men who have done them wrong. The film was produced as part of Refinery29’s award winning Shatterbox Anthology program promoting female filmmakers and it feels like a timely “up yours” to the patriarchy, particularly as abuse allegations continue to shake Hollywood. Subtle it absolutely isn’t but it acts as a nice counterpoint to Westworld in which Dolores does rise up against her tormentors but also…kind of falls in love with her rapist. Hm.

Laura excels as the gun toting madam/matriarch relentlessly searching for justice and retribution. Luckily for her the gang of outlaws who murdered her daughter just so happen to ride into town and unsuspectedly approach their welcoming brothel…

You can watch the beautiful, bloody film in all it’s glory for free right here!

Honourable mentions:

  • The West Wing

It’s a small role but her performance as US Poet Laureate Tabitha Fortis in Season 3’s aptly titled The US Poet Laureate is delightful. She engages in a rather flirtatious debate with Toby (“Nothing rhymes with Ziegler”) over a treaty on the eradication of landmines and delivers one of the show’s very best lines: “An artist’s job to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky. And I don’t get to decide what truth is”.

  • Inland Empire

If you thought Twin Peaks: The Return was slow, confusing and abruptly terrifying you haven’t experienced Inland Empire. Three hours and seventeen minutes long, although it feels longer, this film is probably David Lynch at his most baffling and bizarre. It’s a nightmarish, inscrutable journey into the psyche (I think?) that features a thoroughly committed performance from Laura Dern. Her face fills the screen for a large portion of the film, sometimes to terrifying effect, to the point where once the film relinquishes its grip you half expect her face to be staring back at you in the mirror. She is, of course, brilliant, but I recommend it to Lynch and Dern completists only.

  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Again, a single episode appearance but I just love her performance as Wendy, the woman desperate to marry Jon Hamm’s cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Wendy earnestly reading out his “poems” (notes asking her to bring along $100 next time she visits him in prison) and exclaiming that “If we only see each other one hour a week, he’ll never realise what a useless piece of crap I am and he’ll love me forever, and that’s what I deserve!” are particular highlights.

  • Enlightened

I have not seen Enlightened. I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Enlightened before recently combing Laura Dern’s IMDB; I think I had it confused with Nurse Jackie. Anyway, it was an HBO series from 2011-2013 about a self-destructive executive who tries to rebuild her life after a stint in rehab and becomes a whistleblower on the corrupt corporation she worked for. The trailer gives me a Six Feet Under feel and Laura won a Golden Globe so I’m confident that it’s excellent and on the watchlist it goes.

  • Blue Velvet

Because she sells that “the robins represented love” nonsense, godamnit.